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Emotional Punch

"...your writing lacks the degree of emotional punch we need for this line..."

This is one of the most common reasons editors give when they reject manuscripts. Unfortunately, it's not an easy problem to solve, because to a certain extent, the emotional quality of writing depends on the writer's personality.
For some people, emotions are always bubbling close to the surface and feelings pour out easily when they write, but if this doesn't happen for you, don't give up. There are some practical approaches that might help you to pin down this elusive quality.
Let's start by analysing the term "emotional punch". It's tempting to concentrate on the first word and to think that if you've included plenty of beautifully described feelings you're on the right track. But think for a moment about the other word - the "punch" factor.

A punch brings an image of a clenched fist - of a blow delivered with maximum force. It catches you by surprise and gets you in the guts. Sufficient emotional punch gives your story the "wham" that sets it apart from others.
I believe the first challenge is to find a scenario that keeps your characters (and readers) on edge.
Think of the simplest, but most widely known stories - Red Riding Hood, lured to her doom by the ultimate predatory male... Cinderella, trapped in the original dysfunctional family ... Rapunzel, stolen as a baby and locked away...
Without fail, these characters have a hard time before they reach their happy endings.

Romances are modern fairy tales and the most popular plot lines - secret babies, marriages of convenience, pregnant and alone heroines, reunions, switched at the altar scenarios - all set up situations that create easily recognisable emotional dilemmas.

Beginning writers often have very light conflicts with no real threats to the characters' happiness. To get emotional depth, you have to find ways to crank up the difficulties your hero and heroine face.
Let me digress for a moment. For many years now, I've walked for an hour a day, but I haven't been able to lose weight. Recently, I read an explanation. My fat cells have become very ho-hum about this familiar exercise. I needed to give them a bigger challenge. So I've added hills to my walking regime and I'm swimming on alternate days and at last, I'm starting to see results.

Similarly in writing romance, you need to 'up the ante'. You need to raise the emotional stakes in your plots by including bigger challenges.

Recently, I had the idea of a single, city girl, who discovers she's pregnant around the same time she's offered the research contract of her dreams - to work on location for a television network in various isolated locales in Europe. But... taking the baby isn't an option.

She goes to the outback to ask the baby's father (country based boyfriend) to care for the baby for the time she's away. However, he wants legitimacy for the baby and proposes a marriage of convenience (with the hope of keeping her).
OK - there was enough for a story, but I wanted more emotional punch. How could I increase the problems? A story in the local paper gave me an idea. What if she gets to the outback and discovers that the baby's father has been killed in a mustering accident? Now it's his grieving older brother who wants to keep the baby in the family and proposes the MOC! Getting better, but I needed internal dilemmas. For the heroine, there was the motherly dilemma of abandoning her baby. I made this more complicated by adding doubts about her ability to be a good mother. Her own childhood had been spent in and out foster homes, because her mother had been an alcoholic and couldn't care for her properly.

For the hero, I chose guilt about his brother's accident and the added pressure of the high expectations of his close-knit family and conservative, Federal politician father.
And then my editor suggested an overriding problem - a past encounter for the central couple just to give an edge to their sexual tension.

So now I had a tense couple, guilt and grief over the brother's death, another man's baby on the way, the threat of the heroine's pending departure, her insecurities and the conservative attitudes of the hero's family - at last I had the punch I was looking for.
Think about your current heroine and hero. Do they face dilemmas that take them out of their comfort zone? Are they troubled by internal doubts? Are they wrestling with self image problems - feelings of not being worthy enough to earn the unconditional love of another?

If not, think about how you can make life harder for them - at least for a time. This will mean giving serious thought to both the external and internal conflicts they must face.

Even if you're writing comedy, you need these dilemmas. Give them external pressures that won't let them ignore their internal angst. And then on top of this, give them a burning attraction that only serves to make the existing tensions more difficult.

Of course, you can give your hero and heroine the biggest dilemmas in the world and there still won't be much "emotional punch" if you haven't created characters your reader will really care about.

Would millions of people around the world have cared so much about Princess Di's death if they hadn't already loved her?
Think of a dark moment in a book or a movie that has really moved you. How did you feel about the characters at the very point the disaster occurred?

How had you felt about them three chapters earlier? Chances you were already very connected. You loved and admired them, worried about them - even feared that this sadness, or something like it might come.

If you want to create such lovable characters in your own writing, you, the author, must love them first. And this kind of love grows the way all love grows - from knowing them intimately.

Whether you plan your characters in a detailed profile before you start, or whether you let them grow as the story evolves, you have to get inside them. You have to explore their goals, their background, their values and fears... and most importantly, their ability to change.

I've become so involved with my characters that I've lain in bed at night, worrying about their future (beyond the book). I knew their love was solid, but would they stay healthy? Would they have children? Would they have money problems down the track?
I was quite shocked to realise I'd "lost it" to the point that I'd tricked myself into thinking of my own creations as real. But if we can suspend our own disbelief, we're probably on the road to making the characters come alive for our readers.

Remember to give your readers enough details to help them to see your characters the way you do. Show how your characters feel, not simply by describing their inner thoughts, but by showing the way their feelings affect their dialogue, body language, gestures and behaviour.

The last point I want to make is for me, as a writer, the most important. It's why I write.

You need to use words with the same care and flair that an artist uses colour. This is the writer's responsibility. Editors give advice on plotting and characterization, but how these are expressed is up to you.

Be exacting. Measure the emotional weight of every word so that each sentence paints exactly the right picture!
Words that seem totally unrelated to emotion can help to build up the atmosphere in a scene. Choose verbs precisely to describe the emotion behind a movement or gesture. Your hero's feelings become clearer if, instead of merely sitting, he slouches, slumps, sprawls or settles.

Add layers to the emotional tone by finding words or phrases that evoke an idea and then let the image echo through the book. My current heroine is a mixture of toughness and dignity. She walks like a proud princess, but she has a smoky, tough-girl voice and I've tried to bring this out in varying, recurring ways.

Another version of this technique involves a hero labelling a heroine with a well chosen nickname ( or vice-versa).
Use elements of your setting to enhance emotional tone - weather, colour, sounds and smells are helpful in outdoor scenes. Harness the impact of nature. Bright gardens, deserted beaches, shadows... moonlight... gloom-gathering storms... crashing waves... They've all been used before, but for good reason; they bring atmosphere into your scene.

Urban and interior settings can be just as effective. In movies, set designers go to enormous lengths to coordinate every detail to achieve the exact visual impact the director wants. You are your own director. Simple or lavish, objects chosen with care can create an important sense of atmosphere. Clothing, purposefully described can add to a mood. Has your character selected a garment with meticulous care or has she thrown it on hastily? Does it make her look more beautiful, more vulnerable, less prim, more noble?

Pay attention to the rhythm of sentence patterns. For dramatic tension, short sharp sentences can be effective. Longer, more flowing sentences can soothe or seduce.

Read your work aloud! Listen to the impact of the words you've chosen. Try to ensure that each word contributes to plot or characterisation and emotion.

But remember, enough is enough.

Too many plot dilemmas without relief will give your poor reader nervous exhaustion. Remember you need quiet or fun-filled moments when love can blossom and the reader can draw breath.

When your characters are faced with highly charged, emotional dilemmas, don't let them become too self absorbed or neurotic. They will have faults, but they must also have backbone and spirit. Their courage and compassion must win through!
And when it comes to putting emotional colour in your writing, be cautious with purple (prose)!!

To sum up, these are the ingredients of Emotional Punch:

One: Choose plot situations that create deeply emotional dilemmas for your characters. Make your characters suffer.

Two: Create characters who are believable, likeable and courageous. Readers want to respect your characters. Make the hero and heroine truly heroic.

Three: Let your love of writing flow onto the page. Weave a word-spell around your readers!


The plot discussed in this article is from the book A BRIDE AT BIRRALEE which goes on sale in the UK January, 2003 and in Australia and New Zealand in February.

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